Is U.S. Missile Defense Worth It?
Image Credit: U.S. Navy

Is U.S. Missile Defense Worth It?


Recent news reports from Russia indicate that it’s attempting to enhance the quality of its nuclear weapons. This is happening not only because Russia is again flush with petrodollars, but because it’s trying to counter a perceived threat from the U.S. development and deployment of ballistic missile defense (BMD).

The United States and its allies claim such systems are needed to defend against the possibility of future Iranian nuclear weapons. The issue, however, is whether the threat from Iran’s alleged nuclear weapons program is worth making Russia’s known and substantive nuclear capability a more direct threat to the U.S.?

Much has been written about the economic cost of the U.S. BMD programs. Tens of billions are believed to have already been spent, while annual spending is anticipated by some estimates to be $10 billion or more over the next decade.  And despite its current economic troubles and budgetary constraints, the U.S. seems to be pressing ahead. But arguably more important than the issue of cost is the question of whether the political cost of this effort – directly in terms of U.S.-Russia relations, and indirectly with Moscow’s threat to cut NATO supply routes into Afghanistan – is worth paying.

For Russia, the key point is the United States’ Phased Adaptive Approach to missile defense in Europe. This envisages progressive deployment over four phases (spread out up to 2020) of long range tracking radars and ground- and sea-based interceptors in several European countries. The U.S. has justified this as necessary for creating an effective BMD against possible Iranian nuclear attacks. Russia, however, argues that this would degrade its deterrent capability since the Standard Missile 3 Block II interceptors based on Aegis ships would be able to intercept some Russian missiles.

As a result of all this, the prospects for U.S.-Russian cooperation on missile defense appear dim. Russia desires a joint system under which each party has a designated zone of responsibility and both participate on equal terms by jointly designing the architecture, its configuration and working principles. It also demands a formal, legally binding agreement with NATO that neither side would target the other’s offensive missiles with missile defense interceptors.

This is unacceptable to the United States, which is offering instead a joint data fusion center that would allow both sides to have simultaneous access to missile launch data from sensors in NATO countries and Russia, giving both sides a full, real time picture of potential threats. The U.S. and NATO want to press ahead with their systems and deployment plans with the option to Russia to plug its existing and planned systems into them.

But the differences between the U.S. and Russia aren’t just over the mechanics of BMD cooperation, but also over the very purpose of it. While the Iranian threat is deemed immediate and urgent by Washington, it causes no sleepless nights in Moscow. Rather, Russian-Iranian nuclear relations have been active since 1995, with the Bushehr nuclear power plant finally completed and tests started through Russian technology and assistance in 2009. Russia is preoccupied not by Iran, but by the known as well as prospective augmentation of U.S. BMD. Not surprisingly, while ratifying New START, Russia explicitly mentioned the right to withdraw if it deemed it necessary to retain the effectiveness of its strategic forces.

All this considered, it’s worth looking at how things stand now:

1) BMD is yet to prove its efficacy in a real world scenario. Skeptics abound. Even simple decoys could serve as effective countermeasures.

2) Russian nuclear modernization has accelerated over the last few years, and it today has in its arsenal mobile missiles armed with multiple and maneuverable re-entry warheads to defeat any U.S. BMD.

3) American BMD provides the justification for both Russia and China to continue their nuclear modernization, hurting ties and creating an even bigger trust deficit. U.S. demands for nuclear transparency are unlikely to be met with any positive response in this kind of atmosphere.

4) The alleged nuclear weapon capacity of Iran remains, as it has since the Rumsfeld Commission report of 1998, unclear. There’s no certainty whether these will actually materialize, and there are serious differences of opinion between experts on how close, or far, Tehran may be to a nuclear weapons capability.

5) Even if the Iranian nuclear threat is real, is BMD truly the best solution to the problem? Or in an attempt to check horizontal proliferation, the success of which is in doubt, will it not end up fuelling vertical proliferation in Russia and China, leading to even more vexed international relations?

Alienation of Russia over a system of dubious effectiveness – and over a threat that could turn out to be inflated or better met through other measures of engagement and diplomacy – might prove to be a costly mistake. There’s certainly a case for taking pause and making a course correction before things get out of hand.  The best bet for the U.S. in dealing with the Iranian imbroglio is to take Russia and China along. If it doesn’t, it might find the shield built to protect from Iranian missiles woefully inadequate against the new threats it might create for itself in the process.

February 1, 2013 at 02:24

Russia should build BMD in Latin America to protect those countries from the same threat. Russia should join usa to protect the world from rogue states which can strike other countries with nukes. Russia is just not wise or has a secret agenda in oppossing instead of supporting BMDs. I personaly support BMDs to be builty every were in the this world full of nukes and bad people

August 27, 2012 at 01:00

Never heard about BMD in Asia? Are you serious? If yes, then it just means that you are completely ignorant about the issue…fyi if there is a place on Earth where BMD is more developed than everywhere else, it is in Northeast Asia…South Korea, Japan, Taiwan…all have developed some BMD capacity

August 7, 2012 at 13:53

Interesting article from a pratical perspective. Apart from the actual usefulness of an BMD I encourage the critics to think about the problem from a theoretical perspective. As the author has argued a BMD would effectively deminish Russia's deterrence capability I think there is no doubt about that.
This might amuse some Putin critics but more importantily it leads in to a security dilemma and without going into too many details I believe that even if the USA clearly signals its intentions this purely defensive measure would trigger a spiral of actions that the author touched upon. Thus my very humbled conclusion is, arguing in lines of the author, that the total strategic costs of this endeavor would simply outweigh its benefits….

March 25, 2012 at 21:44

Russia’s complaints about the US/NATO missile defense plans are nothing more than a smokescreen that it is using to do what it wants to do, but can’t do without finding some justification: modernize and expand its nuclear arsenal.

Russia knows that its conventional forces are no match for US forces by themselves, let alone in combination with European forces. Russia’s only means of staying in the Great Power race is to top up its nuclear forces. But it can’t just do so without taking a diplomatic hit when the US is actively trying to bring down the total number of deployed nuclear warheads. So, it makes up a complaint about US/NATO missile defense plans as a way to justify its nuclear expansion and modernization.

March 22, 2012 at 18:26

If you are no longer vulnerable you can attack. So you become a threat. It’s not funny but a question of risc taking.

Tom Tran
March 22, 2012 at 03:49

You are an outsider, and you try to get a full picture inside the US and its politics by connecting just a few dots. I am just wordless.

March 21, 2012 at 20:03


now you used a racial abuse(India the country of eunuchs).moderator of this site should treat this comment.and for your information,nobody is asking to clean up world’s mess by himself.they are just trying to clean their enemy,and trying to set up a puppet government,that is completely unethical.look at afganistan,iraq,libya.actually they are cleaning their own mess,and they are preety f****d up.ain’t that the truth…..why should india get into this mess????why do we owe USA????except revenge for half of century of mistreatment and injustics????

March 21, 2012 at 13:48

Author has done a great job. FAS reported that Russia has legitimate concerns about the final system while it would not address any future Iranian ICBM anyway…see:

Leonard R.
March 21, 2012 at 08:51

It’s not worth it.

Who is paying for this anyway?

It had better be the Europeans.

If Europeans want a missile defense, they can build one.
They’re rich enough & capable of defending themselves.

March 21, 2012 at 07:54

It is called defense. Does only the US has such rights?

March 21, 2012 at 07:49

Yes,Venkat, it is ok for the Amricans to sort out the World by spending money and lives and you in India would chicken out to do the same. You should advice the India the country of eunuchs to dismantle your military.

March 21, 2012 at 06:25

i would say that missile defense is not worth it; it only works in specific situations and it encourages the use and upgrading of nuclear weapons on the premise that “we have a shield, they can’t possibly hit us!” Nuclear brinksmanship at its most idiotic.

March 20, 2012 at 23:34

Seems like BMD is being built to defend against Russia, not Iran. I never hear anything about BMD in Asia, even though North Korea seems far more capable of launching a nuclear strike.

March 20, 2012 at 20:24

Why exactly should the US worry if Russia improves their nuclear missiles? Instead of being able to exterminate America 5 times over they’ll be able to kill it 10 times? It doesn’t matter, and indeed the author supports MAD. OTOH, not having BMD would make all sorts of rogue states more powerful and more likely to pursue nukes. Worst of all, it makes war in the ME and in Korea more likely.

March 20, 2012 at 19:50

Appeasing to the demands of another country like Russia and China, might as well be the same as France and England appeasing to the Nazi’s when they allowed them to invade Belgium without declaring war!

In the end, when the French and British hesitated, it only emboldened Adolf Hitler to ignite World War II that’s all!

The US has learned that you never appease anyone from the aftermath of WWII!

Besides, China and Russia’s big mistake is totally losing credibility with most nations of the world after they recently (twice) vetoed the Arab League’s proposals in the UNSC regarding Syria!

Frankly, when you have two such powers like China that provided nuclear technology to North Korea, and Russia who supplied the technicians that built the Iranian nuclear facility……………………..what does that tell you about these two very irresponsible countries?

Haven’t you heard? The North Koreans plan to fire another missile test in April to see if they can reach Hawaii or the Califonia coast! Even China and Russia has voiced concern over that news!

So yes, I prefer a missile defense system installed when China and Russia has been so kind to send nuclear technology to such responsible nations like Iran, Pakistan, and North Korea!

venkat s kanakamedala
March 20, 2012 at 17:43


March 20, 2012 at 17:03

Very funny. As if the last two decades of money and time was just “not thought through”. Yea right, I’m sure the author knows better than the last 20 yrs. plus of leaders from both parties and the DoD.

The missile defense technology is exactly what will help the US remain at the top of the food chain for decades to come. It is interesting that some regard a system designed for DEFENSE as a threat. Any country willing to target the US or Europe will be forced to think twice…and that is exactly what we need.

Anyone remember the Cold War? Building UP defenses is what helped win that war. Unilateral disarmament was and remains insane.

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